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How US government tech could improve

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How US government tech could improve


Throughout it all, politicians, engineers, and public health officials had to keep people’s information safe—and, perhaps even more of a challenge, convince the public they were succeeding at it.

What would it take to actually make government technology work well in the US? What are the basics of a healthy technological infrastructure that can work for the residents who need it?

We asked five experts to help us understand why it’s so hard to build good government technology, and for their advice on how to create a healthy technological infrastructure for the people who rely on the outcomes. 

A fractured landscape of data 

Cyd Harrell: “Government” in the US means a lot of different things. After the federal government, we’ve got 50 state governments, 3,000 counties—which play different roles in different parts of the country—and 20,000 municipalities. 

So many different parties own pieces of the data needed to identify whether you, in a particular location, are eligible and can get an appointment at a place with a stock of vaccines. Not just governments, but hospitals, clinics, and drug stores, they all need agreements to share that data, and to make their systems work together, which they almost certainly don’t.

After all that, web design—and accounting for people who don’t have web access—may actually be the easy part. 

Alexis Madrigal: A lot of the time, the actual technology isn’t that complicated. The problem is the system underlying the tech. When the federal government wants data that states don’t normally produce for their own work, someone has to put that data together. During an emergency, when everyone has shit to do, it’s not a priority. Without a national healthcare system, there’s no way to easily track tests or overall cases. 

Legacy processes and systems, new vendors 

Sha Hwang: I call working with legacy systems “software archaeology.” It’s like homes built before city infrastructure existed—they weren’t built to connect to city plumbing or a power grid. You have to find the one person who’s been maintaining the system for 30 years, updating a spreadsheet that’s a million rows long with a crazy color-coding system. 

For new systems, there’s a phrase you hear a lot: government buyers want “one throat to choke” if something goes wrong. Big vendors like Deloitte and Accenture will bring in all the people needed for a project. But by outsourcing the potential blame, agencies also cede all the technical expertise. They get locked in. If the system fails, they have to rely on vendors who dug the hole to get them out of it.

For new systems, there’s a phrase you hear a lot: government buyers want “one throat to choke”

Sha Hwang

Dan Hon: No one gets fired for hiring Deloitte or IBM. And when vendors keep getting the same kind of work they’ve done badly, there’s no incentive for them not to build a shitty system. Government requests for proposals are often written so they only fit one or a few vendors. You might see a yes or no box for, “Vendor must have worked on a healthcare system that serves over 500,000 people.” I don’t care whether that system exists, I want to know whether people who have to use it hate it. 

Liana Dragoman: A lot of services are designed around how government works, as opposed to the needs of residents. If you’re trying to get a permit to use a soccer field, you shouldn’t need to know which specific department within Parks & Rec can give you that specific permit. Residents just want to go to the city website and fill out the form.

What’s one significant mismatch you’ve seen between public needs and government tech?

Navigating a system that’s complex by design

Hon: There’s a lot of regulatory complexity in vaccine distribution. But on the website or in the app, the experience is condensed down to, “Why can’t I find out if I’m eligible for a vaccine? I just want an appointment.”

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The world had a chance to avoid the pandemic—but blew it

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The world had a chance to avoid the pandemic—but blew it


The covid-19 pandemic is a catastrophe that could have been averted, say a panel of 13 independent experts tasked with assessing the global response to the crisis. 

Their report, released May 12 and commissioned by the WHO, lambasts global leaders who failed to heed repeated warnings, wasted time, hoarded information and desperately needed supplies, and failed to take the crisis seriously. While some countries took aggressive steps to curb the spread of the virus, “many countries, including some of the wealthiest, devalued the emerging science, denied the disease’s severity, delayed responding, and ended up sowing distrust among citizens with literally deadly consequences,” said Helen Clark, cochair of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response and former prime minister of New Zealand, on Wednesday. 

The report —COVID-19: Make It the Last Pandemic  takes a hard look at why we failed to curb the spread of the coronavirus. It also looks to the future, highlighting strategies for ending the current crisis and avoiding future ones. 

Here are five key takeaways: 

  1. We had an opportunity to avoid disaster in early 2020, and we squandered it. “The combination of poor strategic choices, unwillingness to tackle inequalities, and an uncoordinated system created a toxic cocktail which allowed the pandemic to turn into a catastrophic human crisis,” the authors write. 
  2. Vaccine supply must be boosted and shots redistributed. The report calls on rich countries to provide a billion vaccine doses to low- and middle-income countries by September 2021 and another billion by the middle of next year. It also pushes for vaccine makers to offer up licensing and technology transfer agreements. And if those agreements don’t come within three months, it calls for an automatic waiver so that production can begin where the shots are most needed.  
  3. The World Health Organization needs more power and more money. The WHO should have the authority to investigate pathogens with pandemic potential in any country on short notice, and to publish information about outbreaks without approval from national governments.  
  4. A new organization is needed to help the WHO. The report calls for the formation of a Global Health Threats Council composed of heads of state to ensure that countries stay committed to pandemic preparedness and to hold countries accountable if they fail to curb outbreaks.  
  5. The pandemic’s impact on nearly every aspect of daily life is hard to overstate. More than 3 million people have died of covid-19, including at least 17,000 health workers. The crisis provided “the deepest shock to the global economy since the Second World War and the largest simultaneous contraction of national economies since the Great Depression,” the panel writes. The crisis pushed more than a hundred million people into extreme poverty. “Most dispiriting is that those who had least before the pandemic have even less now,” they add.  

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A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees

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A nonprofit promised to preserve wildlife. Then it made millions claiming it could cut down trees


Clegern said the program’s safeguards prevent the problems identified by CarbonPlan.   

California’s offsets are considered additional carbon reductions because the floor serves “as a conservative backstop,” Clegern said. Without it, he explained, many landowners could have logged to even lower levels in the absence of offsets.

Clegern added that the agency’s rules were adopted as a result of a lengthy process of debate and were upheld by the courts. A California Court of Appeal found the Air Resources Board had the discretion to use a standardized approach to evaluate whether projects were additional.

But the court did not make an independent determination about the effectiveness of the standard, and was “quite deferential to the agency’s judgment,” said Alice Kaswan, a law professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, in an email.

California law requires the state’s cap-and-trade regulations to ensure that emissions reductions are “real, permanent, quantifiable, verifiable” and “in addition to any other greenhouse gas emission reduction that otherwise would occur.”

“If there’s new scientific information that suggests serious questions about the integrity of offsets, then, arguably, CARB has an ongoing duty to consider that information and revise their protocols accordingly,” Kaswan said. “The agency’s obligation is to implement the law, and the law requires additionality.”

The recipe

On an early spring day, Lautzenheiser, the Audubon scientist, brought a reporter to a forest protected by the offset project. The trees here were mainly tall white pines mixed with hemlocks, maples and oaks. Lautzenheiser is usually the only human in this part of the woods, where he spends hours looking for rare plants or surveying stream salamanders.

The nonprofit’s planning documents acknowledge that the forests enrolled in California’s program were protected long before they began generating offsets: “A majority of the project area has been conserved and designated as high conservation value forest for many years with deliberate management focused on long-term natural resource conservation values.”

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Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides what emoji we get to use

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Meet Jennifer Daniel, the woman who decides what emoji we get to use


Emoji are now part of our language. If you’re like most people, you pepper your texts, Instagram posts, and TikTok videos with various little images to augment your words—maybe the syringe with a bit of blood dripping from it when you got your vaccination, the prayer (or high-fiving?) hands as a shortcut to “thank you,” a rosy-cheeked smiley face with jazz hands for a covid-safe hug from afar. Today’s emoji catalogue includes nearly 3,000 illustrations representing everything from emotions to food, natural phenomena, flags, and people at various stages of life.

Behind all those symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies aiming to make text and emoji readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages look the same on all devices; a Japanese character should be typographically consistent across all media, for example. But Unicode is probably best known for being the gatekeeper of emoji: releasing them, standardizing them, and approving or rejecting new ones.

Jennifer Daniel is the first woman at the helm of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a fierce advocate for inclusive, thoughtful emoji. She initially rose to prominence for introducing Mx. Claus, a gender-inclusive alternative to Santa and Mrs. Claus; a non-gendered person breastfeeding a non-gendered baby; and a masculine face wearing a bridal veil. 

Now she’s on a mission to bring emoji to a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. That means taking on an increasingly public role, whether it’s with her popular and delightfully nerdy Substack newsletter, What Would Jennifer Do? (in which she analyzes the design process for upcoming emoji), or inviting the general public to submit concerns about emoji and speak up if they aren’t representative or accurate.

“There isn’t a precedent here,” Daniel says of her job. And to Daniel, that’s exciting not just for her but for the future of human communication.

I spoke to her about how she sees her role and the future of emoji. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

What does it mean to chair the subcommittee on emoji? What do you do?

It’s not sexy. [laughs] A lot of it is managing volunteers [the committee is composed of volunteers who review applications and help in approval and design]. There’s a lot of paperwork. A lot of meetings. We meet twice a week.

I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I recently talked to a gesture linguist to learn how people use their hands in different cultures. How do we make better hand-gesture emoji? If the image is no good or isn’t clear, it’s a dealbreaker. I’m constantly doing lots of research and consulting with different experts. I’ll be on the phone with a botanical garden about flowers, or a whale expert to get the whale emoji right, or a cardiovascular surgeon so we have the anatomy of the heart down. 

There’s an old essay by Beatrice Warde about typography. She asked if a good typeface is a bedazzled crystal goblet or a transparent one. Some would say the ornate one because it’s so fancy, and others would say the crystal goblet because you can see and appreciate the wine. With emoji, I lend myself more to the “transparent crystal goblet” philosophy. 

Why should we care about how our emoji are designed?

My understanding is that 80% of communication is nonverbal. There’s a parallel in how we communicate. We text how we talk. It’s informal, it’s loose. You’re pausing to take a breath. Emoji are shared alongside words.

When emoji first came around, we had the misconception that they were ruining language. Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji is kind of like a new language. It works with how you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve. How you communicate and present yourself evolves, just like yourself. You can look at the nearly 3,000 emoji and it [their interpretation] changes by age or gender or geographic area. When we talk to someone and are making eye contact, you shift your body language, and that’s an emotional contagion. It builds empathy and connection. It gives you permission to reveal that about yourself. Emoji can do that, all in an image.

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